Executive director of The Samaritan Center: It takes very little to positively impact the life of another
By Mary Beth Roach
“I think one of the most profound things I have learned is how very little it takes to positively impact the life of another.”
Mary Beth Frey, of Syracuse, has been the executive director of the Samaritan Center in Syracuse since June of 2005. She shares her thoughts on her work there over the past 15-plus years.
Q: Can you briefly describe the mission of the center?
A: The Samaritan Center is an interfaith effort of community members who are committed to serving the hungry and those in need in order to promote their welfare, dignity and self-sufficiency. I think of the Samaritan Center as a community kitchen table, where those in need, and those looking to help, gather to share food, friendship, support and resources in order to help each other to a brighter tomorrow.
Q: How many people do you serve in a year?
A: Before COVID, we served approximately 135,000 meals a year for individuals and families struggling with hunger and poverty. COVID has had a profound impact on our operations. We switched to take-out meals in mid-March for health and safety reasons, modified our case management assistance and saw a shift in the population we typically serve. The needs of our elderly guests and individuals with disabilities have been provided for by the wonderful response of Onondaga County and Meals On Wheels. Our young children have been well taken care of through the city school district. Many of our guests received additional SNAP-food stamp benefits to help with obtaining food and the Food Bank of Central New York has done a phenomenal job getting pantry food items into our neighborhoods. All of these efforts have actually acted to decrease the number of individuals we serve by approximately 10-15%. The difference has been that those who are accessing our services now are more so individuals needing help for the first time after being negatively impacted by job losses and community shut down during COVID. The case management support we provide also shifted from assisting individuals with issues related to housing or employment to helping folks access stimulus payments, healthcare, mental health care, or apply for unemployment and SNAP benefits.
Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges and accomplishments at the Samaritan Center?
A: One of the greatest accomplishments has been its move (in 2015) to our current location on the Northside at the former St. John the Evangelist Church. Not only were we able to repurpose a beautiful historic structure, but we were able to expand the support services we provide, engage a greater number of volunteers, but most importantly, provide an environment of dignity, love and peace for our guests. I think one of the biggest challenges for the Samaritan Center is helping the larger community understand the struggles of individuals living in poverty.
Q: What has your work at the Samaritan Center taught you over the years?
A: I think one of the most profound things I have learned is how very little it takes to positively impact the life of another. I have found, more often than not, that it isn’t a grand gesture that turns the tide (although those are also nice) but it is the small act of kindness. That is the fundamental lesson of Samaritan for me — small things done with great love give us each the strength to push through to another, hopefully brighter, day.
Q: When you’re not working at the center, what are some of the pastimes you enjoy?
A: Most of my time away from Samaritan is spent being entertained by my wonderful pup, Maggie. She is a bit of a fluffy tyrant that insists we go for hikes, spend summer days at the beach, go for long drives to the Adirondacks, and nap in the sun. Outside of that, I enjoy kayaking, hiking, camping and anything that otherwise gets me into nature to find my footing again.
Photo: Mary Beth Frey has been the director at Samaritan Center in Syracuse for more than 15 years.